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Housing costs and Culver: the local business perspective - PART 2 of 4

March 8, 2013

Local businesses have long lamented the challenges of maintaining a viable income outside the summer months in Culver, and many would love to see a larger year-round population base to help boost sales.

More affordable housing in the area, says Mark Damore Jr., owner of the Lakehouse Grille on Lake Shore Drive, "would help me as a restaurant owner and businessperson in general, and most of all it would help Culver. We want people that work locally to live locally.

It's much easier to contribute to a local economy that you live in, rather than having that debate: should I shop where I live? It's vitally important for long-term stability and growth."

Plus, adds Damore, "Someone on call who lives closer would really help me," though he's quick to point out he's in no way denigrating the excellent work of staff members who reside outside Culver.

"My hope as a business owner in this town is to have my business appeal and be affordable to local customers, not only to visitors in the area," says Dawn Brockey, owner of the Culver Coffee Company on Lake Shore Drive. "Affordable housing in this area would not only increase the local aspect of our customer base, but also allow us to continue to hire employees who are local-further helping the local economy.

If there's one thing virtually every business owner in the community agrees upon, it's what's reflected in Brockey's comment: "The hardest months are by far the winter, but of course this is when our local customers are the ones that keep our business alive -- and every year we continue to strive to increase our local customer base and let them know they are appreciated."

Susie Mahler, owner of Cafe Max in downtown Culver, however, is in favor of more affordable housing in town, but isn't convinced it would contribute noticeably to the success of many local businesses.

"We as business owners appreciate the limited business we get from locals," she says, "and we understand that they need to stretch their dollars as far as possible, but we as businesses can't compete with McDonalds and Wal-Mart. But that's why we rely so much on the business from tourists."

Mahler says that regardless of what local businesses bring in, many local people won't be regular shoppers in Culver partly because, she says, "As a more mobile society we expect more now. People my age love the idea that we don't have to go very far (to shop and dine). But (the younger employees) at the restaurant would rather drive to South Bend to see a movie, for example, because they like the big stadium seating and atmosphere."

Thus, Mahler says she and some other local businesses concentrate their efforts on attracting a mobile demographic to come to Culver and enjoy its offerings, from elsewhere.

"How many retired people want to find someplace new to visit? That's what we're going to draw on. We don't need to build up the (business in the) summers, but the other nine months of the year."

That's much of the reason, she says, for many local businesses' efforts towards filming commercials, producing mailings, websites, social media, and coming up with festival ideas in the off-season.

However, she adds, "More people in Culver cannot hurt us; it raises the tax base and would bring in people to fill the (public) school. But do I think it's going to help the merchants? No...Culver is more resorty."

With regards to local dining, especially, there seems to be a bit of a chicken or egg conundrum, as reflected in Rick Coffman's point that, "There seems to be a bit of a 'where do you go for lunch' problem (among Elkay-Medallion employees each day). There's Subway (on Lake Shore Drive), but even that's a little limited. Two hundred and sixty people should be a big boon for the town, especially at lunch time."

He notes Culver's VFW delivers lunches to employees every Friday, but for many at the plant, time in particular prohibits a sit-down meal.

So it does seem possible that a larger middle-income population base might facilitate a bit of diversification in local business' offerings, to accommodate the specific needs of an increased, year-round populace.

Peggy Pinder, a familiar face as waitress at the Lakehouse Grille (and its predecessor, the Edgewater), is one of those local employees who does live in Culver year-round, and she feels increased options in moderate income housing "definitely would benefit the local businesses.

"I love it," she says, of living and working in town. "It's convenient, of course, and there's no driving at night. If they call me for extra shifts, I'm usually available."

She and husband Ed Pinder Jr. bought their home south of downtown in 1987, and she acknowledges most middle and lower income families and individuals "can't afford housing now. It's ridiculous."

For her part, Pinder says she's more likely to shop in town, "especially with the price of gas. We do most all our grocery shopping at Park N Shop. I maybe drive to Plymouth once a week, and we do eat in town more than a lot of people."

Pinder also wonders whether a strong focus on sales and "deals" during the fall and winter months might help invigorate sales at local entities.

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